Friday, March 25, 2011

Multimedia Computer: Part 1, The Case

I've taken my first step to building an Multimedia Computer; I've purchased the case. This is the same case that I indicated in the blog entry wherein I laid out my plan.

I pledge that I will try to take my time with this. Really. This is a hobby and there is a level of expense one expects with a hobby. I shall try not to exceed that quantity as ambiguous as it is. Having preached to myself a bit, let me proceed to a discussing of the case.

I am not much of a photographer. I concede that immediately. Were I a better photographer there are two things on the front that you would notice. In addition to the usual USB ports and audio and video jacks, there is a Firewire port. I hadn't even considered Firewire in this construction. Now I will have to because I've been given a choice: either get a motherboard that supports Firewire or live with the idea that I've got a place to plug something into that doesn't work.

The second thing you would notice is that this has a handle that folds out. This reminds me of the old "portable" Rainbow computers that Tandy put out. They had a six-inch screen, they weighed nigh onto 40 pounds, but they had a handle with which you could carry them, ergo they were portable.

One thing that I had been wondering, given the dimensions of the case, on which side would the motherboard be mounted: the bottom or the left-hand side. I now know that it will go on the bottom. Installing it will be an interesting exercise as there are a lot of cables and a lot of brackets. I will, no doubt, have to enlist the services of Lydia my lithe-fingered assistant.

The cables are bundled and covered by cloth, which is something new for me. It makes me think of this as a high-end case. It might also make me wonder why I am getting it for a relatively inexpensive price. I didn't have to look very far to see the reason and this calmed my mind. There is only one SATA power connector. I will need two of these, at least, if I am going to install two drives. It doesn't take very much imagination to believe that this device was designed and built when hard drives had switched to SATA but optical drives were still IDE. There is no longer a market for such cases and it is cheaper to sell them to hobbyists than it is to stick another SATA power connector in there. At least this is the story I will tell myself until the ghost of a murdered Chinese worker emerges from the power supply seeking revenge.

So, having opened the box, I learned that I need to order a $2-part. I should also note at this point that I neglected an important consideration in my original plan: a TV PCI card. This is the sort of thing I mean. It goes for about $50.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Proceeding into new ground

This morning I installed Ubuntu Linux onto the old laptop that Lydia had been using. It was so easy to do as to be silly. Insert CD (prepared using instructions from here) and follow simple directions.

The laptop had been barely going for a while. There had been a virus issue that had been dealt with in a manner that left the machine without a sound card. I don't know why. After I installed Ubuntu, suddenly the sound card worked. I am amazed.

The truth is, though, I don't know what I am going to do with this now fully functional laptop other than to tell people "Hey, I've got an Ubuntu laptop!" I've got laptops running out my ears. The truth is that I just needed my fix. I am a junkie now, having made a couple of computers. It's in my blood.

My next project is beginning to form within me. Currently, I have a desktop computer with Windows Vista Ultimate addition hooked to the TV in the family room. I have used it to
  1. Record and play TV;
  2. Run Netflix;
  3. Play DVDs.
It can do a lot of other things as well, but I can't do them there as it is in the family room and people would bug me. My idea is to build a linux-based media center computer. I had mentioned this earlier and a hang up there had been Linux not being able to Netflix, but I got around that by purchasing a Roku. The Roku handles Netflix and a number of other options well.

What I would need to make this would be
  1. A blu-ray drive for about $80;
  2. A huge hard drive to record movies on for about $80;
  3. A small form factor case for about $70.
  4. A micro-ATX motherboard for about $60.
  5. A CPU to go with the motherboard for about $70;
  6. And memory to match for about $60.
Surely I am forgetting something, but this totals to about $420. That is a bit on the pricey side at this point, but it is a start. I will think on this and do some shopping and see if I can do better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

One Piece at a time: Finis

We started our project with the case and we finished it with that one little random piece of cable that you almost always have to get. The project was smooth, but not so smooth as to be unsatisfying. Quite frankly it was kind of affirming when we got to the point where the cable wouldn't reach and I knew how to order the adapter.

Lydia, for her part, was a trooper and a good sport. She didn't pout when we couldn't finish right away. Her enthusiasm when the various parcels arrived carried me along in the evenings when I was tired.

Now it is done.

We installed the last part, the piece of cable, and installed Windows 7 on it. It is up and connected to our wireless network. I then connected it to our Windows Home Server and the network printer. After Lydia polices up the area around her desk, I will let her have some speakers and we can install iTunes on it, and then we can begin the process of migrating her music over, which was the main purpose of this upgrade.

I now begin to think about my next project. Maybe a Media Server for the Family Room, maybe refurbishing Lydia's now former laptop into another Ubuntu box. I don't know,

What I do know is that I loved this project and a little girl's smile is priceless.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One piece at a time: Parts 7 & 8

Last Tuesday the WiFi card, memory, and optical drive arrived. Lydia charmed me into spending another evening at work, installing parts in her computer. The memory went in first. I am letting her do as much of the installation as I can. A big part of this exercise is confidence building. The innards of a computer will not be scary to her after this is over, much as the innards of a chicken were no longer scary to me after the first time I cut one up.

Less goo with the computer though.

Pushing in the memory cards required a bit more pressure than she was capable of, so I did it. Click click, your in. Then came the WiFi card. Here we met a problem that required more than pressure. PCI cards like this have a piece of metal that is supposed to slide into the back and keep the dust out. As this is a small case, the piece of metal was too long. There was no getting it to fit. I was afraid we were going to have to use a USB wireless adapter which would've done the job, but I didn't want to waste a USB port.

Lydia had the answer.

"Dad," she said, "couldn't you just take that metal thing off with the screw driver?"

Indeed there were two screws there that were easily removed. I took them off and it fits fine.

Then came the interesting discovery. Both the optical drive and the hard drive are SATA drives. SATA drives require special power connectors. The power supply that came with this case had exactly two of these, presumably one for the hard drive and one for the optical drive. My discovery is that there is no way these could both be plugged-in at the same time. There simply isn't enough wire between them. Connecting them is physically impossible without positing the existence of wormholes.

Fortunately, there is a fix. An adapter that is a SATA power cable can be bought for a couple of bucks.

As soon as that adapter gets here, we will be ready to install, so we will need a monitor. A brilliant idea occurred to me. I could give her my old 17-inch monitor and I could buy a cheap one for myself.

I am so thoughtful.

Friday, March 04, 2011

One Piece at a time: Parts 4, 5, and 6

Once the motherboard is installed, as Lydia and I did on March 1, it is then possible to install everything else. This is where the "delay of gratification" thing becomes difficult for me. This is especially true when you know the remaining parts are not all that expensive even in the aggregate.

At this point we have the motherboard and the hard drive installed. In order to be a computer, this is actually all that is required, but most of us want a little more and there are technical issues. By technical issues, I mean that your are going to have to install the operating system in some way. I understand this can be done from a thumb drive if your BIOS is robust enough. As I have worked with this motherboard before, I know this is not the case. That means that an optical drive (CD, DVD, or blu-ray) will be required. I am not quite ready to play with the new technology of the blu-ray, so I decided to go DVD. As one of Lydia's heart-desires is to use this with her iPod, you have to figure this drive will be used even after the operating system is installed.

Oh, yeah, I guess the computer isn't exactly ready to run because it has no memory. On my itty-bitty Ubuntu box, I only used one gigabyte of memory. That only cost me $20. I couldn't find such a deal this time. In choosing memory, you have to be careful to get something that works with the motherboard. There are two things to look for. The first of these is the basic type DDR, DDR2, DDR3. As near as I have been able to figure, the speed and cost go up with the number after the R. Our motherboard requires DDR2 memory. There is more to it than this, however, as you also have to look at the speed of the memory. Our motherboard can handle either 667 or 800 speed memory. This lead me to the choice of memory made by Crucial. Crucial is a common brand and has a good reputation.

The final thing at this point is the connection to the Internet. This will be done from Lydia's room that doesn't have an Ethernet connection in it. Therefore she will need a wireless card that did not come on the motherboard. The motherboard does have one PCI expansion slot however so I have invested in a wireless PCI card. I'm a little worried about this for a couple of reasons. The inside of the computer is very small. Will it even fit? But more importantly, Newegg is trying to sell an extended warrantee on this for $7. It would have to have about a 1/3 chance of failure for this to make economic sense to me, but it is a great source of profit to them, no doubt.

In any case, the die is cast and those parts are ordered. Lydia is getting exited as she has already started bugging her big sister for her old monitor.

One piece at a time: Interlude

Lydia has been anxious to start putting things together since the hard drive arrived. I'd told her we couldn't put anything together until the motherboard arrived. Well, we got it on Tuesday, so on Tuesday evening after supper instead of watching NCIS I was working on a computer with my twelve-year-old daughter.

I am going to say now that it was a good experience that I wouldn't trade for anything. I want to say it up front because some of what comes later might sound like complaining. For instance, when I mention the fact that there is a reason I when I choose my own time to work on a computer it is 8:00AM on Saturday morning when I am fresh as opposed to Tuesday at 7pm. (For some reason Tuesdays are a tiring day for me. I don't know why.)

While I was finishing up some other chores, Lydia and her mom prepared the kitchen table as a workspace. When I arrived, I had her bring one of our cereal bowls as a place to hold the screws. This is very important. I've spent more time looking for screws than any other part of the process, but the solution is easy: have a place for them.

The first part of the operation was opening the case. This is a nicely designed case, so the rule of thumb in opening is that it will be easy...if you think. And it was. The entire case is just a marvel of design. There is not a cubic inch of unused space.

Once it was open and we had cleared out the case, we began the process of installing the motherboard. It was at this point I made an important discovery. Lydia is good help. She does what she is told and she thinks. And she has thin, long fingers that will fit into these small form-factor cases.

She attached the motherboard, and attached the cables, but I had to figure out what cables went where.

I have entered the age of bifocals, but have made the discovery that they made certain print very clear but very small. To light a candle rather than curse the darkness, I have purchased a magnifying glass with a light as part of my tool kit. It is great in reading motherboard diagrams. The diagrams and connections are all straight forward except for the front-panel, but Lydia's young eyes and thin, long fingers were useful again.

Once the motherboard was in with the cables attached, we proceeded with the hard drive, whose bay was cleverly tucked away.

We then closed it up and are waiting for the next round of parts.